Tag Archives: liberalism

Beyond Left And Right

Bret Stephens–the New York Times columnist– is too conservative for my taste, by which I mean I tend to disagree with his positions on issues. But he is conservative within a traditional American liberal democratic framework.

If that observation seems odd to our contemporary American ears, it is because the language of politics has been debased. Years of Rush Limbaugh and his clones turned “liberal” into an epithet devoid of meaningful content, and the radicalization of the GOP has confused “conservative” with Neanderthal.

Which brings me back to a recent Stephens column with which I do agree.Mostly.

Stephens says the U.S. needs a Liberal Party. He dutifully recites the reasons third parties routinely fail in a system that is set around a two-party duopoly, but he also argues that both the GOP and the Democratic Party are historically weak. I’m unconvinced that things have changed enough to make a third party viable, but in the process of his discussion, he makes a very important–and very under-appreciated–point.

By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.

All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike.

But now the basic division in politics isn’t between liberals and conservatives, as the terms used to be understood. It’s between liberals and illiberals.

Stephens points to the illiberalism of both the Right and the far Left, pointing on the right to  “Stephen Miller on immigration, Steve Bannon on trade, Josh Hawley on elections and Marjorie Taylor Greene on every manner of lunatic and bigoted conspiracy theory.” On the Left, he excoriates excesses of the “Me too” movement and the so-called “cancel culture.” He says that the illiberal Right is by far the most dangerous, because it is capable of winning elections and, when it loses, willing to subvert them.

Whether you agree with his specific critiques or not, I think he is absolutely correct about the need to reinforce and restore the underlying liberal consensus that democracy requires-what he describes as the “capacious” liberal faith within which we can argue in good faith about what “sensible” regulations look like, and the extent of the “social supports” that cushion the vagaries of a market economy.

Today, we characterize those debates over specific policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” but they can only occur within a larger, widely accepted liberal democratic framework that embraces a government protective of individual autonomy, based upon consent of the governed (as reflected by the votes of the citizenry)and committed to equality before the law.

Specific policy debates are, as Stephens says, parochial quarrels within that shared liberal faith.

 

Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.

 

 

Political Fundamentalism

I had lunch today with a delightful young woman who, among other things, is active with the League of Women Voters. During our discussion, she remarked (rather plaintively) that she found it difficult to understand why the League was so often viewed as a “liberal” organization. “We don’t take positions until we have studied them carefully,” she said. “We gather evidence for two years, and assess it carefully, and base our position on that evidence.”

There you go! Basing positions on evidence is what is now considered liberal.

The conversation reminded me of an explanation from my book God and Country: America in Red and Blue. I was looking at the paradigm shift caused by the Enlightenment, and the profound effect that shift had on our Constitution.

When Francis Bacon insisted that laws governing the material world could be inferred through careful observation (a notion that, for contemporary Americans, is an unremarkable commonplace), it had enormous implications for the existing, traditional, deductive methods of understanding reality. The “old learning,” had begun with an a priori “given,” the bible, the absolute truth of which was unquestioned. The primary goal of Puritan education was thus directed at biblical understanding; one began with the text and learned—deduced—how to interpret it. Proper interpretation required the application of time-tested methods of exegesis and analysis, and instruction in historical context and meaning (mostly, what important theologians of the past had decreed to be correct understandings and approaches). One started with Truth, and education was the process of learning to apprehend and defend that Truth. Bacon changed the fundamental order of things by teaching that education must begin with observation of natural phenomena.

We are a country that was founded on a radical notion: evidence matters. Today, however, those of us for whom evidence still matters are dismissed as “liberals” by the political equivalents of the Puritans. Like those Puritans, our ideologues (of every stripe) begin with their “truth,” and look for evidence to support it and ways to impose it.

No wonder we find it so hard to communicate.